The Scottish Pop-up Election will decide many things about our future

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, April 17th 2016

The Scottish election is underway – the winners already decided, the European referendum casting a shadow, and all the parties having difficulty shifting from the land of milk and honey to austerity and cuts.

One seasoned observer commented to me that the election wasn’t what things were like in his day, reminiscing about the joys of seeing Harold Wilson in Glasgow in 1966. This is the cry of the older generation down the ages; things aren’t the same, and everything – politics, elections, football – were better in the dewy-eyed days of their youth.

This contest says much about our country and future. There are perennial problems with Scottish contests in a British context, which are not treated as the ‘national’ election by the British media, and at best on a par with the local government London Mayoral contest, and often, relegated under it.

This contributes to our elections – seeming like in William McIlvanney’s words ‘a pop-up picture school of Scottish history’. He meant how our past is seen as all about kings and queens and isolated events, which people feel alienated from and don’t really understand. This has the look of a ‘pop-up election’ – with voters one step removed from a series of isolated events and photo-ops.

There is an increasing choice between the parties on tax and spending. All the parties propose very different routes – with Labour and the Greens offering the most redistribution, and the Tories proposing no rise in income tax rates. The Lib Dems are closer to Labour and the Greens, while the SNP are in the middle. None of the parties come near to bridging the £1.8 billion cuts Scotland will experience from Westminster by 2020.

The PPP/PFI scandal broke, with seventeen Edinburgh schools having to close for the week. Former Labour frontbencher Stella Creasy got to the heart of the matter, stating that Scotland had 40% of PPP/PFI schools in the UK with 8.5% of the population.

PPP was meant, under Labour – Gordon Brown in the Treasury and Jack McConnell as First Minister – to offer value for money, take it off the public balance sheet, and offload risk onto the private sector. It was always borne of New Labour ideological dogma, and is terrible value for the public purse.

It has provided a lack of accountability and poor quality schools for pupils. Over a week in – where is the apology from Jack McConnell or Gordon Brown? They seem to have done an Osborne: going to ground when the going gets tough.

With the SNP unassailable in lead position, attention has turned to the battle for second place between Labour and Tories which, in reality, is about who can provide the best opposition to the Nationalists.

The Tories launched their manifesto badged as providing ‘strong opposition’ to the SNP. This is an admission they can’t win, which politicians aren’t meant to say, but is refreshingly honest.

The Tories are putting all their eggs in the basket of Ruth Davidson’s appeal which is risky. First, they have been here before with Annabel Goldie in 2011 who was seen as everyone’s favourite Auntie, but didn’t translate into votes. Second, it is constantly stated that Davidson is popular with voters, and the party needs to translate this appeal into support.

But Davidson isn’t that popular; she is only relatively popular compared to the still unpopular Tories. In a recent YouGov poll, Davidson had a 32% rating versus Labour’s Kezia Dugdale’s 13% on holding the SNP to account – which illustrates the plight of both of them!

Labour are struggling to find any kind of coherent message, trying to outflank the SNP on the left, while holding onto pro-union voters. They are being squeezed by the omnipotent SNP, Tories from the right and Greens from the left.

The party has announced the most redistributive tax policies that could take £1,970 per year from the richest 10% of households, but a small increase for those in the poorest households. It is a desperate late conversion to redistribution and smacks of panic.

The outsider parties are having a decent election. David Coburn, leader of UKIP, might be not taken seriously, but he is being talked about and that is better than being ignored. There is a decent chance they could win a seat or two in the Parliament, aided by the Euro referendum.

The Greens launched their manifesto, ‘A Better Scotland needs a Bolder Holyrood’, and like the Tories know their prospective constituency, in this case, hopeful, younger, indyref Yes supporters, frustrated at the SNP. The Greens will have a good election, and could bring ideas and radicalism into the Parliament. RISE – the new left wing force – are creating some waves, but will struggle to win any seats.

This isn’t an election marked by the rhetoric of a Harold Wilson, or a Maxton or Maclean, but Wilson turned out to be a huge disappointment, and none of the Red Clydesiders achieved much practically. This Scottish election sees our politics in transition – and one that some are already adapting to better than others.